GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 401 May 4, 2011

[“Good Friends” aims to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and publishes “North Korea Today” describing the way the North Korean people live as accurately as possible. We at Good Friends also hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.]
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Overseas Representatives to “Come and Leave Silently”

Directive to Make Sure Nobody Starve to Death during the Spring Lean Months

Rice Collection for Military Resume While Saying, “Do not Force it on People”

Farmers in Kangseo County Suffer in Silence due to Military Provision Obligation

No Provision for Residents Despite the Corn Import Increase

Ryanggang Province Residents Run out of Kimchi in Spring Lean Season

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Overseas Representatives to “Come and Leave Silently”

Central Party has recently sent a recommendation to the overseas representatives that officials “avoid entering the motherland during this time.” In short, the officials are being requested to not enter North Korea. In the event officials need to enter the country, they are requested to do so quietly and then leave. According to one Central Party official, this request comes as a result of government worries about the attitudes of the people toward officials’ lifestyle. When overseas officials return to North Korea for short periods after a stint overseas, they are usually busy wining and dining with both their friends and family.

However, the government is worried about the reaction of regular citizens when they see the cadres’ relatively well-off lifestyle; this at a time when regular citizens are unable to obtain regular food rations. The result has been a government effort to change the lifestyle of cadres. The same ‘request' to adopt a low-profile has also been given to officials in local parties, and the Central Party has ordered officials to gather in no more than two when going to a restaurant to eat. However, many Central Party officials are troubled by this new order, which has followed other orders by the government to avoid gathering in groups of more than two, or talk on the street for long periods of time. Officials are questioning the new order saying they realize the importance of considering the attitudes of the people, but ask how it is possible to go to a restaurant alone. They consider the order to be unrealistic because it prevents them from being able to talk or eat together. "I know that the poor food situation has made the government worry about public sentiment, but this is too much," said one cadre, speaking frankly about his discontent with the new policies. "If we can't be trusted, who do they expect to trust to lead the country?"

Directive Instructs to Make Sure Nobody Starves to Death During the Spring Lean Months, But…
The Central Party delivered an emergency directive to each province and instructed to “resolve the food issue as soon as possible and prepare a thorough measure to prevent outbreak of malnutrition in spring lean months.” To simply put, it means to “make sure nobody starves to death.” Since they don’t use the expression “starve to death,” they phrase it “stop malnutrition” instead. Each provincial party instructed city and county parties to “vitalize trade with China by concentrating their capacity and prioritize food purchase in all sectors.” Provincial parties added a warning that if hunger death does occur, those in charge will be penalized. City and county parties emphasized that each local public enterprise and unit “should assist those in need after investigation. Particularly, rations for laborers should be provided at all cost.” The emergency directive was delivered promptly, but people do not seem to take it seriously.

Central Party has instructed to mobilize all capacity to reach out overseas and secure food through foreign trade. Foreign currency earning business, which was only allowed to a couple of special public enterprises, is now expanded to city and county level units. Passports for the purpose of government affairs are now issued to service networks in order to allow them to travel to China conveniently. The current directive is in line with previous efforts to promote self-sustenance and is not completely unexpected. Last February, a similar directive instructed all sectors to mobilize all their capacity and complete the food production requirement. Overseas representatives are also receiving a series of directives telling them to purchase food and agricultural supplies such as fertilizers, pesticides and vinyl film. The overseas representative officials are buying the requested items on credit and promising to pay back in fall since they don’t have enough cash. This is another burden for them, who also suffered from military provision collection obligations. The officials explained their local situations and pleaded for a favorable handling of the obligations at the general meeting of overseas representatives in February. Their plea was accepted and all overseas offices were instructed to stop mobilizing for military provision collection campaign.

Rice Collection for Military Resumes While Saying, “Do not Force it on People.”
An order has been issued saying, “Collection of rice for the military should be done in an organized fashion, but do not force it on people.” After being briefed about the suffering of people caused by rice collection for the military, the Central Party issued an order specifying, “No matter how urgently rice is needed for the military we should not forcefully collect rice from destitute people. The collection should be a voluntary donation so that those who are better off contribute more and those who are worse off can be exempted.” As a result, the Province Party issued a lecture note to each City and County Party based on the instruction of the Central Party. Nevertheless, a strong emphasis was given at the public lecture with a notion of “Donate rice for the military with civil consciousness in mind” rather than giving the message of “Those worse off should not be forced to contribute.”

An official at Pyongsung city, South Pyongan Province expressed the predicament saying, “They are asking for in-depth learning designed to reinforce ideological mobilization project. With that request given they would continuously press and nag if we fail to achieve the target amount of rice collection for the military. As such, we have no choice but to collect rice in forceful manners.” Another City Party official in Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province says, “The rice collection request has to be met no matter what. Nobody will give up their rice if we make a plea and say ‘Don’t do it forcefully’ or ‘Contribute more if you are better off than others.’ As such, we have no choice but to rely on forceful means by creating nuisance and make people give up rice in order to avoid problems.” That is the only way they can meet even some of the target amount.

At local Parties some officials are speaking out saying, “It is unrealistic to collect rice for the military when people are about to face the tough spring lean season.” Their point is, “They could not collect much rice for the military during January-February period even with an extensive military rice collection campaign. How can they possibly collect rice unless rice falls from the sky?” People in Ryanggang Province are clamoring especially. They are saying, “Those in Daehongdan and Baekam Counties barely survived by eating ears of frozen potatoes for all winter long. Because there were no grasses they had to eat the roots of grass. Now, telling us to contribute rice for the military means telling us to die.” The Provincial officials in Ryanggang Province also say that “The military food condition is really bad. So, let’s use our civil conscience and make donations voluntarily.” Nevertheless, in reality, rice collection is done in forceful manners. An official in Baekam County admitted that “There is a tendency that collection is forced on poor people who have nothing to eat for themselves simply because the higher ups are pressing on us while saying make it a voluntary donation based on conscience.” He added that the Central and Provincial Parties are asking to make it a voluntary donation, but those in lower unit have no choice but to do it in forceful manners because of the pressure of meeting the target imposed by the higher ups.

The “Exemplary” Farmers in Kangseo County Suffer in Silence due to Military Provision Obligation
As a movement to resume the support of military provision spreads nationwide, farms in Kangseo County, South Pyongan Province are busy with the “Military Provision Support Political Project”. The farmers feel weary about this campaign because many of them had received 2-3 months’ less worth of food than last year due to the bad harvest. Farmers in Kangseo County suffer in silence because it is the place where famous ‘Cheongsan-li spirit’ came from while farmers in other areas speak up about their difficult situations. The Party suggested, “Our county has the renowned Cheongsan-li, and it’s the most recognized county by the Party and the nation. We should lead the military support campaign. Shouldn’t we contribute 50kg per household at least?” Many farmers are perplexed by this. 50 kg is 3 month supply of food for an adult, based on 600g of daily intake. In reality, adults and children eat less than 400g per day these days, and 50kg can support a family of four for a month.

Some households received seven to eight months’ worth of food rations and some others received four to five months’ worth of food. For both of them, 50kg of military support obligation is too much to handle. Even if they received food of seven to eight months’ worth, the food do not last for the same period because the farmers, without other sources of income, exchange the food with daily necessities.

Farmers in Kangseo County keep calm ostensibly due to their collective fame as an exemplary county but they also suffer from the burden of military support contribution. Some of them bury the food under the ground or hide it. If farmers do not contribute their food as military provision, it’s actually beneficial for city laborers since the farmers would bring the food to markets to exchange it with other commodities, increasing food supplies in the market. Meanwhile, city residents still cannot buy food in the market since their business is going very slow.

Farmers in Munduk County, one of the best breadbaskets in South Pyongan Province, are told to “conscientiously contribute military provisions” but forced to do so in reality. In mid-April, some farmers contested to the Central Party that “We were told the military provision contribution was voluntary but actually were forced to submit it.” As a result, some officials were dismissed. In Chungam District, farmers confronted the farm officials saying, “Last year, we were told that there would be no military rice collection, and now you collect it again. Why did you give food rations in the first place then?” A farmer in Sagu-li Farm who had not contributed any rice was faced with fierce criticism at general meeting for Party life and ended up submitting 10kg later. Even though farmers speak out critical opinions recently, they are still powerless when faced with collective control.

No Provision for Residents Despite the Corn Import Increase
It was reported that the corn imports from China have increased since January, which arrived mainly through the customs in Onsung County and Namyang in North Hamgyong Province. Approximately 1,500 tons of corn was imported from Domoon in China in January and February; in March it increased to 2,500 tons. Not from smuggling but under the official quota, Chinese rice, flour, and other grains are continually being imported in addition to corn. These imported grains have cost quite amount of money due to the price rise.

In addition to Onsung County, food importing activities are often witnessed in border cities such as Hoeryong, Soongsun, Rasun District, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Possible explanation to this phenomenon is that each city party, county party, public enterprise and unit is following the self-food-provision instruction. However, the normal citizens have not received any benefit yet. Some of the imported food goes to the military of southern region of Hwanghae Province, South Pyongan Province and Kangwon Province and some other portion has been provided to major construction sites including Heechun power plant project site in Jagang Province and 100,000 household building project sites in Pyongyang.

When asked if there is a plan to provide food for the residents given that May through July is the most critical period, an official answered, “The Party authorities think that the military should be provided for first because citizens can at least avoid starvation by farming or doing business, but the People’s Army has no choice but simply to starve.” The people showed cynical reactions against the news that all the imported food is being provided to the military by saying, “Military First Policy feeds the army even if the people starve to death. I don’t know for whom this country exists.”

Ryanggang Province Residents Run out of Kimchi in Spring Lean Season
People continue to rely on frozen potatoes in Daehongdan County, Baekam County, Kabsan County, Bocheon County in Ryanggang Province. They were able to eat salted radish during the winter, but as the spring lean months arrive, many households even run out of kimchi (which is the essential side dish; Korean pickled vegetables). The salted radish was the only side dish and now it is replaced with salt soup (salt added water). Housewives said that they have not set a table for a while. In other words, given that the meal is as simple as two to three boiled potatoes and salt soup, they cannot and do not have to set a good table.

Adults are suffering from severe nutritional unbalance, and it is needless to say how serious the children’s health problem would be. Lee, Cheong-oak (alias), a 3rd grade teacher in an elementary school and resident of Kabsan County, shares her story. Of 28 students in her class, 15 students are always absent and only 4 to 5 students regularly show up while the others attend irregularly. Since so many students are absent, the teacher cannot introduce new concepts in line with the curriculum and only reviews the previous classes. Other schools in Kabsan County and schools in Baeam County and Daehong County have similar problems. The attendance rate has been reported to the Department of Education in County Party and Province Party, and officials investigate this issue and set out crackdown. However, the attendance rate only keeps decreasing.

Ms. Lee said that teachers end up being criticized for this problem. Teachers visit every student’s house to ask parents to send their children to school, and parents say that they cannot do so because they cannot afford so many contributions that schools require. Even if the teachers promise that there won’t be any burden that the schools impose, nobody gives credit for it. Parents respond by saying, “I appreciate that you won’t give extra burden. However, we do not have any food to feed my kids. They don’t have any strength to go to school.” Lee, Myung-oak often gave up persuading parents because they said, “I just feel fortunate to survive in the midst of this terrible food crisis. I know I need to send my children to school, but school does not feed them. They already lack physical strength and I cannot let them walk to school every day. Sitting still is the way to save strength.” Ms. Lee said that she does not persuade the parents passionately but just pretends to do her responsibility to avoid criticism.

Chae, Geum-soon (alias), who lives in Bocheon County, is an elementary school teacher and she shares her story where she did not recognize her student: “When I visited a house of a student who have missed class almost for a month, the kid was alone and lied down on the floor. I did not recognize him at first because he was looking at me blinking feebly with his mouth open. When I asked him ‘Are you Ryong-ho?’ he seemed to nod slightly only with his eyes, and I knew he was Ryong-ho. He seemed to have starved for a while. He was extremely skinny and looked gaunt. He could not sit up or keep his balance. I was so upset and wondered if his parents even wanted him to live. Since his parents weren’t there, I tried to find some food for him in the kitchen. There was nothing but a few frozen and turned-black potatoes. I bought some rice, made thin rice gruel and fed him with it. Although I’m also having a hard time to feed my family and myself, I felt really sorry about him and tried to do something to save him. I agree that Ryong-ho was one of the worst cases that I’ve seen, but I found that many students are in a similar situation to Ryong-ho’s case when I visited students who have been absent for a while. I worry that we will see many more children like Ryong-ho until we have new crops of potatoes at the end of June. I don’t understand why our poor children have to starve and suffer. I cannot urge them to come to school while I know they are in the terrible condition. I am frustrated because there’s no measure to resolve this issue even if I report to the school and the party. They only blame us for the low attendance rate, which is pathetic.”

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